On postmodern conservatism

In The Federalist obituary to Peter Augustine Lawler, a scholar of political philosophy and American politics, Yuval Levin summarized the thread that ran through all of his arguments:

Modern life, he suggested, is characterized by an effort to invent a highly individualistic form of the human person. This kind of person should be capable of unprecedented freedom, and therefore perhaps unprecedented happiness too. But it isn’t really possible for actual human beings to be so thoroughly individualistic. So actual human beings can never really be quite happy while playing the role that modern free societies assign them. That means they will be restless, and eager for a different role. That restlessness is a source of endless anxiety, but also of hope—because it sends us searching for a way of life better suited to who we really are. It means modernity will always be producing its own critics and always live in a kind of creative tension with itself.

Lawler described himself as “postmodern conservative.” Levin explains this curious appellation: “What people usually call postmodern is actually hyper-modern, in that it extends the modern project of deconstructing nature through reason to its absurd conclusion of deconstructing reason itself. Conservatives, by recognizing the limits of the entire project from the outset, can see more clearly where it was right and where it was wrong.” In an essay that Levin highly recommends, Lawler writes:

Conservatives can be (perhaps the only) genuinely postmodern thinkers. The reason we can see beyond the modern world is that its intention to transform human nature has failed. Its project of transforming the human person into the autonomous individual was and remains unrealistic; we can now see the limits of being an individual because we remain more than individuals. The world created by modern individuals to make themselves fully at home turns out to have made human beings less at home than ever.

Levin continues: “The solution to this problem is not to abandon modern life and its fruits (as some conservatives might want to do) but to recognize its limits and address their consequences by finding ways, within modern societies, to treat people as more fully relational beings.” In National Review, Lawler argued:

So to be postmodern and conservative is to take our stand somewhere between the traditionalists and the libertarians. The traditionalists focus is on who each of us is as a relational being with duties and loyalties to particular persons and places. The libertarians — or, to be more clear, the individualists — focus on who each of us is as an irreducibly free person with inalienable rights, a person who can’t be reduced to a part of some whole greater than himself or herself. A postmodern conservative is about showing how a free person with rights is also a relational person with duties. The truth is that each of us is a unique and irreplaceable free and relational person.

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